Squeezing through claustrophobic cracks in yellow rocks, winding around more bends than a conga line, tromping through knee-deep muddy water, we were having a blast. And that was just the adults. The kids were grinning so much I was afraid their teeth would get sunburned.
Warning: If you enjoy hiking with your children, don't take them to Little Wild Horse Canyon. It'll spoil them as rotten as a week-old cantaloupe. After spending a day working through the skinny parts of the canyon -- with 400-foot-high walls that are only two feet apart--nothing else is ever good enough. When you suggest a hike, they'll always ask, "Can we go back to Little Wild Horse?"
It's a first-class adventure for families, the kind of hike that makes everyone feel as if they are 8 years old. Winding through the mysterious turns of the canyon is like eating a box of fine chocolates. You never know quite what you will get until you bite in and round each tight twist. The fillings are made of tight passages, waterfalls of stone, low-bridge chokestones, and whalebone swirls in the sandstone.
Southeast Utah is not much more than tens of thousands of interconnected canyons criss-crossing the landscape like cracks in a shattered windshield. The slots are the narrowest of the gorges cut through naked rock, the most unique and intimate features of the Canyonlands. Water funneled through a crack in layer-cake sandstones can gouge out a slot in a million years or less. Typically, the walls are hundreds of feet high and less than a child's arm span wide. In the narrowest spots, the sun reaches the canyon floor for only a few minutes a day.
Little Wild Horse is the most hiked slot canyon on the Colorado Plateau. With easy access and no need for climbing ropes, it's one of the few slots that kids can enjoy.
Pam Swanson of the Bureau of Land Management's Price Resource Area says more people are discovering the canyon every year.
"We don't know exactly how many hikers are down there, but in the last few years it's become popular," Swanson said. "We're getting ready to put in a parking area and bulletin board to help visitors orient themselves." She adds that popular is a relative term and that on weekdays usually fewer than five groups enter the canyon.
One of the last parts of southeastern Utah to be penetrated by roads, the San Rafael Swell is a huge dome of rock rising 3,000 feet above the surrounding deserts. On the south and east boundaries of the Swell, the exposed rock layers are tilted to near vertical and form its most striking feature, the San Rafael Reef. The 800-foot walls of the Reef are a barrier that protects the inner part of the dome. Little Wild Horse Canyon slices through the Reef like a saw cut.
What sets Little Wild Horse apart from other slot canyons is the length of the narrows. It isn't a short crack to squeeze through and be done, but the bottleneck goes on for well over a mile. In the depths, the canyon opens a half-dozen times, teasing you into believing the narrows are over. Just beyond the next bend, it starts all over.
There is no trail, but who needs one when passage through the rocks is as straightforward as a maze. Simply start walking up the canyon bottom. In about a half mile, the canyon walls push in from both sides and a low wall of sandstone blocks the route. You'll find a couple ways over the obstacle, and the kids will definitely need some help. If you find this difficult, be cheered in the knowledge that the wall is the hardest part in the entire canyon. Within a couple hundred yards, the drainage splits. Go right into Little Wild Horse, the smaller of the two canyons. Straight ahead is Bell Canyon, an alternate return route.
Slot canyons aren't as dark and gloomy as they sound. Sunlight plays off the walls high above. Now and then you burst into bright alcoves with vertical bands of sandstone, like walking through whale's ribs. Everywhere the rock is sculptured into flowing lines, giving the feeling of motion.
It's a little less than three miles to walk through the Reef. You can go as far as you like, then turn around. However, there is an incentive to make it all the way through. The main portion of the narrows is cut through Navajo sandstone, but the last half-mile is in the Kayenta formation. This sandstone has its own narrows that are totally different from the Navajo. The red-layered sandstone walls are much lower and are scalloped like Swiss cheese.
For the more adventurous, you can walk all the way through the Reef to an old mining road, turn left and walk about a mile to Bell Canyon, then descend Bell back to the trailhead. Bell is not nearly as scenic as Little Wild Horse, but its soaring walls are impressive.
Forget Las Vegas. Go to the San Rafael Swell to play the slots. It's legal for the kids and they'll talk about the trip long after you get home.
Getting there: Start in Green River, Utah, and head west on Interstate 70. After 11 miles, take the Utah Highway 24 exit south. Continue for 24 miles and turn right onto Temple Wash Road, following the signs for Goblin Valley State Park. In 5 miles, keep heading for Goblin Valley by turning left on a well-maintained dirt road. Half a mile short of the entrance to the state park, bear right, following signs to Little Wild Horse. The trailhead is about 5 miles from Goblin Valley. The roads to the trailhead are in amazingly good shape considering it's 50 miles away from the nearest town.
Be prepared: The nearest gas is in Green River (50 miles) and Hanksville (40 miles), so fill up the tank before leaving town. No water is available in the canyons. You can fill water bottles at Goblin Valley, but you must pay the day-use fee to get into the park. Carry lunch and plenty of fluids, about a quart per person. A camera with 200 ASA or more film is a must. Packing a pair of extra socks might pay off near the end. Don't take a big pack -- it won't fit through the tight squeezes. Hip packs or a couple of small rucksacks work best. Footwear for the trip is a hard call. If you are there in the middle of a long dry spell, hiking boots are best. Most of the time, though, you'll encounter waterpockets and your feet are bound to get wet. One good idea is hiking in old running shoes. Wear socks, too, to prevent chaffing from small rocks and grit that get trapped in your shoes. An alternative is a pair of sturdy all-terrain sandals.
Camping: Primitive camping is permitted almost everywhere on BLM land, and a shadeless campground is located at the state park.
Kid stuff: Exploring the length of the canyon is a full-day trip. Kids under five or six will find some parts of the hike difficult, but can make it with a bit of help. It's impossible to get a child backpack carrier through many of the narrowest passages, so younger kids may have to wait a few years.
Best time to go: Summer trips to the canyon are iffy. Foremost is the danger of flash floods, which are most likely to develop during the rainy season from July through early September. A narrow slot with few escape routes is no place to be when it rains, so heed the clouds no matter what the time of year. Also, it can be quite hot during the summer, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Make the trip in spring or fall. April and May are warm but can be wet. Mid-September to early November is the best time to visit.
More info: Check on the latest conditions before starting the long ride out to Little Wild Horse. Before you leave, give the Price Resource Area Office a call at (801) 636-3600 and ask about road, stream flow, and weather conditions.
Side trip: If you're going that far, plan on spending a day or two in the southern San Rafael Swell. Nearby Goblin Valley is another child's delight, always ranked No. 2 on my kids' favorite hike list. The valley is filled with pedestal rocks shaped into eerie heads, chocolate drops, castle turrets, and toadstools. Kids love climbing among the low spires, or giving the sculptured rocks fanciful names. Closer to Highway 24, the road to Temple Mountain cuts a dramatic canyon painted with Fremont-style petroglyphs, then leads to the remains of uranium mining operations dating back thirty years.